Tom Hart Dyke is a horticulturalist, modern-day plant hunter and heir to Lullingstone Castle in Eynsford, Kent. He first shot to prominence in 2000 when he and his travelling companion were kidnapped by suspected guerrillas in the Colombian jungle while searching for rare species of orchid.
During the nine months he spent in captivity, Tom was regularly threatened with death. As a way of coping with this terrifying ordeal, he began drawing a design in his diary for his dream garden, containing plants collected on his travels in the shape of a world map. After his release, Tom realised this dream by creating the World Garden at his ancestral home at Lullingstone, which is now made up of over 8,000 species and attracts more than 10,000 visitors each year.
Tom Hart Dyke
Tom is the author of two books, The Cloud Garden (with Paul Winder) and An Englishman’s Home, which document his kidnapping experience and the creation of the World Garden respectively.
The World Garden project has also been the subject of two hit BBC programmes, Save Lullingstone Castle and Return to Lullingstone Castle.
Tom was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University earlier this year in recognition of his services to botany.
What was life like growing up at Lullingstone Castle?
It was brilliant. Lullingstone has been our family home since 1361 and has such a sense of history. It is so close to London and yet so far – that sense of space and adventure makes you feel like you could be anywhere. It is from growing up here that I developed an interest in the outdoors and, in particular, the world of plants. It’s been very inspiring.
Was there anyone in particular who sparked your passion for plants?
My beloved late Granny. She was an amazing lady and she really loved her plants. Even when she was well into her nineties, she’d be out working in the garden, regardless of the weather. She gave me a packet of carrot seeds and a trowel at the age of three and that was that – I’ve never looked back! The combination of growing up at Lullingstone and the influence of my Granny meant I was destined to have green fingers!
When did you make the transition to plant hunter/collector?
It was a natural transition for me. In my early 20s, I had a grant from the Royal Horticultural Society to go abroad to collect plants in seed form and study plant conditions in the wild to improve my husbandry back home. I was inspired by our native flora and then travelled overseas to see what their cousins were like in the wild. For example, I would see the Bee Orchids growing on the golf course here at Lullingstone and around Blean Woods near Canterbury, and then travel to South East Asia to see the orchids growing in the trees in the tropics. I was also fascinated by my Granny’s tales of all these amazing Victorian and Edwardian plant hunters.
Does plant hunting still have an important place in the world today?
Of course, plant hunting has a hugely important role. You would be amazed at what’s out there still to be discovered, whether ornamental or medicinal. For example, there were around 200 new species of orchid found last year alone in South East Asia. Obviously expeditions have changed since days gone by. Rather than huge ships going abroad for years at a time, you can now take a flight and almost get straight to the point. Anyone can be a plant hunter these days – apply for a grant, get your permits and permissions, grab your rucksack and off you go!
Seventeen years ago, you embarked on a plant hunting trip to Colombia that ended in disaster when you were kidnapped. Describe the experience.
I was travelling with my friend Paul, looking for rare species of orchid. We had almost crossed the Darién Gap, the only break in the Pan American Highway, which runs from Alaska to the tip of South America. We shouldn’t have been there and we knew it wasn’t safe, but it was one of those scenarios where you think it won’t happen to you. Well, as we found out, it can happen to you and it was crazy. I’ll never forget the actual kidnapping: these figures just came running at us – teenagers with big guns – throwing us to the floor and taking our rucksacks off. We thought it would be the last day of our lives. We were dragged to our feet and marched from place to place, living a very nomadic lifestyle for nine months. It was a really scary experience.
How did this provide inspiration for the World Garden at Lullingstone?
One day, our captors told us that we had five hours left to live. I thought, I’m not going to wait around for that and started scribbling plans in my diary for what has since turned into the World Garden at Lullingstone. I think it was my way of dealing with such a terrifying situation. Looking back on it, something very positive has come out of such a negative and death-defying experience. However, to this day, my Dad still insists that they released us because I talked too much about flowers and there’s probably an element of truth in that!
How do you think such a life-changing experience has shaped you?
It has certainly put things into perspective. I like to think that I take things in my stride now and have a laid-back approach to life. In a funny way, I think it was fate – we were meant to go there, get kidnapped, survive it and get out. We had to go through it to get where we are today. If you take away the experience in Colombia, would we be talking now? I don’t know. All these things have come from it and, of course, the World Garden. It’s been like therapy for me. Gardening is therapeutic anyway, but the creation of the Garden has taken therapy to a whole new level.
Why is the World Garden such a special place?
I think it’s the range of plants we have in such a small area. We’ve got thousands of species, hybrids and cultivars in what is, in essence, a two-acre site. The Garden’s educational value is also very important to me. When visitors arrive not quite knowing what they are going to see here and then leave a few hours later with knowledge they never had before – that’s a huge buzz.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
The World Garden, no question. However, within that, there have been a few fun things. For example, flowering particular plants for the first time and growing the world’s most dangerous plant, which is like a stinging nettle – and the sting from it lasts for months on end. In addition, I’ve been really pleased to be able to grow plants that are really tough to grow and also plants that no-one else has. If Kew Gardens doesn’t have some of the plants grown here, you know you are on the right track.
Any particular favourite plants from the Garden?
That’s such as difficult question as there are so many options. I will whittle it down by choosing a plant that’s looking fantastic right now, which is the Shepherd’s Hook Lily from South Africa – it was a great achievement to flower that. However, every plant when in flower and looking its best is my favourite.
Do you have a preferred country within the Garden?
It has to be Mexico – the variety of plants, cacti and succulents is fantastic.
What are your plans for the Garden over the next decade?
To develop it further and maintain it to an extremely high horticultural standard. Our aim is to eventually have about 10,000 different types of plant.
You've been on numerous plant-hunting trips overseas. Of the places you've visited, which has been your favourite and why?
I’m fascinated by the Canary Islands. They are so diverse and the range of flora is incredible. The degree of endemism is also remarkable – it’s the botanical Galapagos of Europe.
After a long day working in the Garden, how do you relax and unwind?
With a long soak in a Radox bath and a good gardening magazine.
What advice, if any, would you offer your younger self?
Don’t go to the Darién Gap! Other than that, just go for it. If you’ve got a dream, follow it.
Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?
Yes, and many of them I’m discovering as I go along. Plant-related, it would have to be finding the Black Orchid in Borneo. I also love playing badminton, so reaching the top of the league in which I compete is a real aspiration.
Do you have any advice for novice gardeners wanting to grow exotic plants in their own gardens?
There are many exotic plants – Canna Lilies, Dahlias, lots of exotic cacti and succulents – that you can plant out in the summer and then bring in again in the winter in either a frost-free greenhouse, or on a window sill or the porch of your house. It’s easier than you think and the rewards are very high, especially on a lovely sunny day when all the tropical foliage is glistening.
To find out more about the World Garden at Lullingstone Castle and to plan a visit, see the website.
Images: courtesy of Tom Hart Dyke